December 10, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

A fire tore through a Palms strip mall. Some restaurant owners are still reeling from the devastation

Jay Betts had planned to spending his day preparing a catering order for a wedding with 200 guests. Instead he woke to a 6 a.m. phone call bearing some of the worst news a business owner can hear: There’d been a fire, still raging, and no one was aware of the extent of the damage.

Betts and a handful of other restaurateurs are still feeling the effects of a deadly fire that ravaged a strip mall in Palms last month, shuttering multiple businesses — one restaurant possibly permanently — and forcing relocation, pivots, a building-wide drop in business and losing what one estimates to be thousands of dollars each day in its wake.

The front of a restaurant with its roof torn open, exposing charred beams.

A fire destroyed Jay Betts restaurant, Bernie’s Soul Food restaurant. Betts is currently taking mobile food orders and cooking out of a ghost kitchen.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“I was making almost $3,000 a day,” said Betts, owner of Bernie’s Soul Kitchen. “Now I’m making only maybe $600.”

A 5:44 a.m. call to 911 drew more than 120 firefighters to the Palms strip mall where Bernie’s sits at the western edge, adjacent to a feline boarding facility that saw 17 cats die in the blaze (two of the 19 retrieved from the building were revived). A nail salon, a martial-arts studio, a smoke shop and a staffing agency also sustained direct fire damage.

Today, much of the the center of the building remains burned out. Select businesses, such as Bernie’s, now have heavy chains across their door handles. A long fence has been erected along half of the building’s facade forming a barricade between the parking lot and what was the entrance to select storefronts — and, for a time, a makeshift memorial to the 17 cats, photos and roses left in the rubble by their owners.

A representative of the Los Angeles County Fire Department stated that information about the 9000 W. Venice Blvd. fire’s inception cannot be shared as it is still under investigation; however one department member hospitalized in the process of fighting the fire has recovered and has since returned to active duty.

A man stands in front of a restaurant blocked by fencing.

Chef-restaurateur Jay Betts stands in front of his restaurant damaged in a September fire.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Since opening in May, Betts had filled his casual soul food and Jamaican restaurant with jerk oxtails, creamy mac and cheese, icing-slathered cakes, fried wings, shrimp combo plates, long-simmered greens, and even a unique Jamaican-inspired take on the classic Italian beef sandwich. Due to displacement from the Sept. 17 fire, he’s been operating out of a ghost kitchen in Hawthorne, taking orders via phone and Instagram DM, and delivering across L.A. County himself in an attempt to keep his business afloat. The chef, who formerly operated Bernie’s Jerk Kitchen on Melrose Avenue, has also begun popping up with a stand at Leimert Park on occasional weekends and is trying to pick up as many catering gigs as he can to offset the loss of his restaurant.

The day of the fire he hired a moving crew and ran to Home Depot to purchase deep freezers for his home and his garage as he could no longer access his restaurant space nor its storage. The hired crew also helped to move the restaurant’s ordering tablets, all other cash and valuables, and the TVs and framed photos from the walls. He’s glad they did: Within days of the fire, someone broke into Bernie’s by wire-cutting the back screen door.

“But all they found was an empty cash register,” he said.

Every day feels like a scramble now. He is unsure when he’ll be able to reopen in the space and estimates he’s losing up to $12,000 a week but says he’s one of the lucky ones. His restaurant suffered some of the least damage in the 15-business stretch.

“Those were some good people next door,” Betts said. “Outside there are people crying every day, putting roses on the fence.”

Bernie’s suffered both fire and water damage in the roofing and was forced to throw away hundreds of Styrofoam containers and much of anything else sitting out at the time of the fire, though the dining room remains eventually usable and he was able to salvage his fryers, grills and tables.

Down the single-story plaza, others weren’t so lucky. Chef-founder Danny Cheng has been serving Mandarin, Sichuan and Hunan-style cuisine from the kitchen of Golden China Restaurant since 1983. The fire closed his restaurant on Sept. 17, and the next day a representative shared that it could be one full year for the restaurant to reopen. Multiple other business owners told The Times that they’d been informed the restaurant will not reopen at all, though Golden China’s Yelp page states a reopening is slated for Nov. 30. The phone line is disconnected, and the restaurant did not respond to multiple requests for comment by other means.

A side view of a string of businesses destroyed by fire.

Since the Sept 17. fire, a temporary fence has been placed around the exterior of several businesses. Many remain barricaded from the public, whether by fence or heavy chains locked across the front doors.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Five doors down, the family that owns and operates Jamaican restaurant the Jerk Spot said that this is the second fire their restaurant has survived in this strip mall within the last six years, having been tenants for eight.

“So getting the call this time set off alarm bells,” said owner Courtney Williams. “Luckily for us again, we didn’t get damage.”

Starting the week after the fire, however, business was much slower, the Williamses say; their customer base of regulars who stopped by for curries, patties, jerk salmon, red beans and rice and other specialties after nail appointments or massages or picking up dry cleaning have ground to a halt. In the weeks since, calls from fans started trickling in, asking if they’re open for service; business has picked up slightly, though they’re still losing business post-fire.

Still, what perhaps stings more is seeing some of their friends shutter their businesses along the row — some for good.

“It was a relief to see we were not on fire, but it was disheartening to see what was happening after,” Williams said. “With some of the shop owners, we had a good relationship, so of course them being affected that way hurts us.”

Restaurants US Donuts and Tom’s #5, both at the opposite end of the strip mall from Bernie’s Soul Kitchen, remain open for business and sustained little to no damage; weeks later, customers still arrive at both voicing how relieved they are that the restaurants survived the event.

Two weeks after the fire, Betts, meeting for a food pickup in a parking lot in Westchester, said he hopes to remain a tenant of the Palms building. For now he’s cooking out of Hawthorne and on the waiting list for a ghost kitchen in Hollywood, which would grant him a more central base for pickups and deliveries. The fire has set him back financially, but his trade and his customers keep him going.

“It’s not just money — money is the least,” he said. “The food is what’s most important to me.”